In the year 2000, a woman named Jill Price approached Dr. James McGaugh at the University of California, Irvine. She expressed that she had an unusual memory in which she would involuntarily relive her past all the time, and had great difficulty with letting go of her recollections. Dr. McGaugh was very interested in what Price was saying and was willing to gather a team of researchers to study her memory.
Six years later, the McGaugh lab at UCI identified Jill Price as having a very rare kind of memory which was called HSAM (Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory). HSAM makes a person unable to forget any (or most) of their personal experiences. However, by saying that, it’s only their autobiographical memories that are affected this way. Everyone has autobiographical memories regardless of whether they’ve got HSAM or not, and they’re the exact kind of recollections that we would include in an autobiography if we were to write it. Typically we seem to lose most of our autobiographical memories, though people with HSAM tend to be unable to let go of them.
Since 2006, the number of people identified with HSAM has grown to 60 worldwide (which includes me). A small number of places around the globe are currently researching HSAM, the largest being the McGaugh/Stark lab at UCI. The purpose of HSAM research isn’t to shower us participants with lots of cash and attention. It’s for a far better reason than that.
Some get a surprise when they hear that HSAM researchers generally believe it’s highly likely that hanging on to our whole past may not be quite so extraordinary. Our brain is such a multi-layered organ, and different areas can either overlap or contradict each other. Researchers primarily believe that there’s some biological reason elsewhere which makes those of us with HSAM able to retrieve our past with ease.
Most of a person’s memories are stored in a region of the brain called the hippocampus. MRI scans of HSAM research participants across the board have shown that this part of the brain has been larger and/or has stronger connectivity between neurones. Memories are essentially formed by neurone connectivities, and a stronger electrical connection means that the memory will remain permanent. This mainly occurs within a person’s hippocampus. Whenever our hippocampus gets damaged from an injury or disease (including Alzheimers) our memory recall is known to be affected.
As people with HSAM have a well-connected hippocampus, researchers are trying to find out what our daily lives include that have made the region so strong. From there one of the hopes is to figure out what the correct therapies, medicine, and nutrients are for memory loss. Though perhaps most excitingly MRI scans could reveal the exact regions and connections needed for a healthy memory.
It’s fantastic that there’s a possibility that in a few decades time neurosurgeons will be able to repair a damaged hippocampus (or any other region related to memory) by implanting artificial neuron connectors. If this can be done, fears of dementia and memory loss would become a worry of the past.